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Like millions across the globe, I spent much of Wednesday watching the storming of the United States Capitol with my family, including my school-age children. 

It wasn’t long before I received emails from former students of mine, now teachers in their own classrooms. Shocked and upset, they wanted help thinking through how to approach the chaotic, violent events with their students. 

As conversations unfolded over email, text and phone, I realized how worried these young teachers were about talking with their students.  Some of it I expected: The day’s turmoil was scary and confusing to watch; the teachers are uncomfortable talking about politics with their students; and these delicate conversations would be taking place  on Zoom. 

The teachers were also angry.  Like so many of us, they believed the promise that 2021 was going to be a better year.  Just six days in, the assault on what President-elect Joe Biden called “the citadel of liberty” shattered that tenuous hope.  And they believed many of their students were going to feel the same way.

The hard work is in the delicate conversations that teachers ought to be having with students.  Talking about political violence is complicated, regardless of the circumstances.  But after a polarizing four years and the racial unrest of the past summer, it is even more fraught.

There are several basic tenets that teachers should adopt to facilitate these discussions.

Related: Teachers need to talk to students about impeachment and President Trump — here’s how

First, though, I reminded them, above all else, to prioritize safety, mental health and self-care for themselves and their students.  Something as simple as giving extra Zoom-breaks counts as self-care, for teachers and students alike.

 In addition:

  • Initial conversations should give students the space to process events. Emotions and fears will run high for all, but especially for students who have been most affected by the trauma of the racial unrest that plagues the United States, and those who are refugees from countries in which political violence is commonplace.    
  • Start with a big question.  Conversations are easier when we have a common starting point, and big questions can be asked during a class discussion, or as an independent writing prompt.  Some questions to consider are: How do you feel about what happened? What moments stand out to you? What questions do you have? What facts do we know about what happened, and what else would you like to know? 
  • Name what happened.  No one can quite agree on what to call the events that unfolded on Jan. 6.  Classroom discussions about the day can open up big questions about what these events mean, and what they should be called. Though some have called this a “coup” or an “attempted coup,” I would not label it that way because of the disorganized nature of what happened, and the lack of military support.  In my view, this was an “insurrection,” a violent uprising against a government.
  • Subsequent conversations can focus on media literacy.  Reminding students to consider the source of their information, and that all media has some bias, is a critical first step. As so many others have pointed out, the events of Jan. 6 were horribly predictable, even as they were shocking to watch in real time.  Media, primarily social media and far-right news networks, fueled much of what occurred.  The narrative being pushed by many — that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump by the Democrats, the deep state, and Dominion Voting Systems’ machines — is devoid of evidence and has been rejected by courts across the United States. Yet far too many Americans believed it. The hashtag  #StopTheSteal was trending across social media platforms, creating space for individuals and organized groups to incite anger and make plans. 
  • Help students “read” photographs and videos.  Stunning images emerged from outside and inside the Capitol buildings.  Some are scary, others breathtaking in the brazenness they show, and all are part of the historical record.  Students can learn to “read” photographs and videos by considering who took them and why, labeling what they see and what they think might be absent from the image, and then working to give the image context. 
  • Allow students to take action.  When the world becomes frightening, it is helpful for children of all ages to focus on ways they can help. Young children can draw pictures for members of Congress and their aides, or for those who were left out of the narrative as the insurrection unfolded: custodians, secretaries and groundskeepers.  Older students can write letters of support or discuss ways to engage in social action in their communities, in digital spaces or as part of larger organized movements.
  • Be prepared for this to continue.  It is unclear what will happen in the weeks leading up to, and immediately following, Biden’s inauguration, but it seems prudent to have a plan in mind in case further violence erupts.  Remind students that well-established news sources are often more reliable than social media, and the spread of misinformation contributed to the turmoil that occurred; encourage them to check the information they share and see on social media as a way to help themselves and others.

As teachers expected, students have many questions, and they are asking them already during class discussions  on Zoom. One fourth-grade boy, who is white, asked:  “Where are the police? If these were Black people, they would be arrested or sprayed with the eye gas or even killed.  Why isn’t anyone helping?”

A 10th-grade girl asked: “What are we supposed to do to fix all the messes that the ‘adults’ have made?” 

Moving ahead, we have little choice but to be inspired by those who handled such tough questions before we did. In 1963, James Baldwin wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  These words, from Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” seem prescient as we grapple with the events of yesterday, and of the past four years more generally.  We will all be well served to bear in mind how conflicted American history is, and to learn from those who have paved the way for a future brighter than our past.

Jennifer Rich is executive director of the Rowan Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, and an assistant professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.  Her forthcoming book, “Politics, Education, and Social Problems: Complicated Classroom Conversations,” will be published in the spring of 2021.

This Op-Ed about the attack on the United States Capitol was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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